December 23, 2018
There are certain people in our lives, who, when we see them or hear their voices, make our hearts leap with joy. Who is such a person in your life? I think of my mother.
These are the people in your life who have strong arms and soft hearts. These are the wise ones who have weathered many storms, and assure us that all will be well. These are the people in your life whom you trust absolutely.
This is the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth.
Both have just taken extraordinary leaps of faith and said ‘yes’ to God’s call to give birth to sons who will change the world forever; John the Baptist and Jesus. And, I think they each have their own inklings that their ‘yes’ will lead to a great deal of pain in witnessing how their sons will suffer and die.
But God’s timing is difficult for both women. Elizabeth is . . . well, old. Had she been younger and her body more supple, she could handle the pregnancy and birth.
Mary is . . . well, too young. Had she been just a little bit older, and actually married to Joseph, it would quell the whispers and raised eyebrows.
They are meant to be companions to one another.
So, Mary travels three- or four-day’s journey to visit Elizabeth, to help her with her geriatric pregnancy, yes, but also, I’m convinced, to connect with the one woman in her life who knows what she’s going through.
Today’s Gospel story is all about two women who experience the spirit and respond to it for the sake of God’s people. Two ordinary, peasant class women who live in a time and place that affords them no social influence or cultural power. And I believe the initial readers of Luke would have gotten the irony of this right away. Two nothing-women, whom nobody yet knows or cares about, will give birth to the salvation of the world.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, who is an official of the temple, and therefore represents those who have power and influence, doubts what God is doing . . . and he is struck dumb.
Clearly, the new life of salvation does not come from within the walls of the temple, the religious powers that be, but from the wombs of two peasant women whose faith is unshakable.
Think about that and bring it into the present day. In the fifty years since Vatican II, two generations of God’s people, ordinary people, and dare I say, women in particular, have responded to becoming the People of God, just what Vatican II heralded, and have sought to authentically live the Word of God. Of course, men have responded as well, but that, quite frankly, has been tainted by too many Church leaders, almost exclusively men, who have betrayed that Word.
Just this last Wednesday, we learned that the Bishops of the six dioceses in Illinois failed to disclose credible abuse allegations against 500 priests.
In many cases, the Illinois Attorney General said the accusations have "not been adequately investigated by the dioceses or not investigated at all." What's more, the statement added, the church often failed to notify law enforcement authorities or the state Department of Children and Family Services about the allegations.
And we just learned that the western province of the Jesuits allowed 20 priests who had been credibly accused live out their retirement years on the campus of Gonzaga University.
This is on the heels of what we learned last August, the Bishops of Pennsylvania failing to report credible allegations against 300 priests, involving more than 1000 victims. There is so much here that needs to be reflected upon and discussed that it makes my head swim and my heart heavy. But the one point I want to make today is simply this:
When left solely to the men, to the officials in charge, whether back in the day of Luke’s gospel, or in these days, the church fails, miserably. Luke knows this. Luke knows the important role of women, ordinary women in the birth of the church and the sustenance of our faith.
Women of faith frame Luke’s gospel. Elizabeth and Mary at its beginning. Mary Magdalene, Joana, and Mary mother of James at its end, who find Jesus in the tomb and remember his promise to rise on the third day.
Women of faith show us the way.
So, back to our story. When Mary arrives, the encounter with Elizabeth is spiritually electric. Each has responded separately to God, but when they meet the Spirit arcs between them like sparks.
Elizabeth’s baby leaps in her womb. Elizabeth proclaims, “Blessed are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” It’s an extraordinary holy moment and she ponders, “Who am I that the mother of the Lord should come to me?”
But then the electricity arcs to Mary, who launches into the second greatest prayer in all of Scripture, the Magnificat, the Canticle of Mary. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
[play Holy is His Name – 3 minutes]
So, before we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we need to hug and thank and love the women of faith in our lives, particularly our mothers, who have carried forward the extraordinary spiritual work begun by Elizabeth and Mary.